It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Acquisitions

… and unlike a company which specialises in student accommodation which “aquired” some land locally a few years ago, I know there’s a “c” before”the “q”. Yes, I can hold spelling grudges for years. I can also keep books for years on my shelves… before either reading them or giving them away because I’m never going to read them and whatever possessed me to buy them in the first place has long since evaporated… But some of the following may well become members of the Ian Sales Permanent Book Collection – which does not necessarily result in an eventual state of “having been read”. I really need to get the TBR down to manageable levels. I think my current record is eleven years between buying a book and actually reading it – and, perversely, it turned out to be my favourite book of that year…

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Flesh & Wires, Elysium, Necessary Ill, The XY Conspiracy and A Day in Deep Freeze were all ordered from Aqueduct Press. The second and third I’d heard good things about, and that prompted the order – the rest were thrown in to make it worthwhile… and Shapter’s novella I immediately nominated for the BSFA Award. I wrote about Flesh & Wires here.

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Europe at Midnight was sent to me by the author, who is a good friend, and excellent it is too – see here. It was on my BSFA Award ballot. I hung on for the signed limited hardback of Slow Bullets, only to discover WSFA had given it the same ISBN as one of their previous books. You would not believe how many things that fucks up. Argh. I wrote about it here. And Mike Cobley is a friend of many decades, so I only buy his books out of a sense of duty – hence Ancestral Machines. (Only kidding, Mike’s space operas are smart twenty-first century examples of the subgenre, and worth reading.) Other Stories is a long-awaited collection from a favourite writer – and it’s another lovely job from PS Publishing.

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Borderliners is by one of those authors whose books I pick up when I see them in charity shops. I’ve been a big fan of Helen Simpson’s short stories for many years, so a new collection by her – which is what Cockfosters is – is worth celebrating. And I’ve always been meaning to complete my Radix Tetrad by picking up a copy of Attanasio’s Arc of the Dream, but completely failed to do so until now – but I’d sooner have one in better condition than this one.

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Spin Control, The End of Days, The Adjacent and The Last Pilot were all Christmas presents. My family obviously know my tastes in books – or have access to my Amazon wishlist… So far I have read only The Last Pilot – see here.

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Caliban and Lady Killer are a pair of graphic novels I bought in Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen over Christmas, and wrote about here.

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Atoms Afloat I’ve been after for a while. I think the NS Savannah, the first commercial nuclear-powered ship, is a beautiful vessel. DH Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage came from my mother, who found it in a charity shop, I think. And I love me some photographs of Soviet/East European modernist architecture (second only to Niemeyer’s designs for Brasilia), so Roman Bezjak: Socialist Modernism was a must-purchase.

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Gypsy was recommended to me by a number of people, and the title novella is indeed very good – sadly it wasn’t longlisted for the BSFA Award, although I think it was eligible. Happily, Wylding Hall, also recommended to me by, er, the same people, was longlisted, is very good, and it took one of my nominations. The Buried Giant didn’t make it to the longlist, but A God in Ruins did… so I read it, thought it very good indeed , and promptly nominated it for the BSFA Award. Gypsy and Wylding Hall I wrote about here.


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Moving pictures 2016, #2

More films watched by Yours Truly, some of which might have been from a certain list, some of which might not.

amores_perrosAmores Perros*, Alejandro González Iñárritu (2000, Mexico). I hadn’t realised this was the movie which brought Gael García Bernal to fame (admittedly, I’d thought Bernal Spanish, not Mexican), but having now seen it I can understand why so much notice was taken of him. Like another South American film on the list, Meireilles & Lund’s City of God from Brazil, Amores Perros is a series of interconnected stories, in this case three, all springing from a car crash. Bernal plays a young man who discovers that his brother’s dog is an excellent fighter. So he enters it in dog fights, and it wins repeatedly (the film-makers make it clear no dogs were actually harmed during the making of the movie). But then he accepts a private fight with a local gangster, and when his dog wins, the gangster shoots it. Bernal stabs the gangster and flees, with his friend and his wounded dog… which is when the crash happens. The driver of the other car in the crash was a model, the lover of a wealthy magazine publisher. Her leg is severely broken. While recovering in the new flat she shares with her lover, her yappy dog disappears down a hole in the floor, and searching for it she injures her broken leg, which then has to be amputated. The third section centres on a homeless man who appears briefly in the previous two stories. He rescues Bernal’s dog, but it is killed after he agrees to murder a man… Like most such films, the plot is complicated and somewhat convoluted. It is also, however, well-played by its cast, and well-shot. A deserving entry on the list.

ryans_daughterRyan’s Daughter, David Lean (1970, UK). I’ve always been conflicted about Lean – I mean, I love Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, but for all his plaudits I’ve never really thought of Lean as a particularly good director. And Ryan’s Daughter appears to be an attempt at making another epic movie like the two previously mentioned, except, well,… Mind you, it has to be said the cinematography is frequently gorgeous. But Robert Mitchum makes an unconvincing Irish school teacher, although he does give it a good go. John Mills’s Oscar-winning village idiot feels like an invader from a much older, and less sophisticated, film, and the story’s leisurely pace means its moments of high drama often fade away to nothing. And there are several moments of high drama, perhaps the most notable of which is when the villagers help the Irish Republican Brotherhood recover arms and munitions during a fierce storm from the German ship which attempted to deliver them but foundered. It’s a movie that feels like it lacks focus because it has so many things going on in it, and in such a short narrative time-frame and constrained to such a small geographical location. And, to be honest, the whole introduction, intermission and entracte thing, with incidental music, just feels pretentious. Yes, I know Lean did it in the other two aforementioned films, but sticking up “INTERMISSION” in big letters on the screen does not make it an epic (I’m old enough – just – to remember when cinema showings did have intermissions), and I’ve yet to be convinced it serves any good purpose.

londonLondon, Patrick Keiller (1994, UK). Given my admiration of James Benning’s films, this was recommended to me as something similar I might like, and I ended up with a copy as a Christmas present and… Yes, good call. It has more of an overt narrative than Benning’s films – here provided by Paul Scofield’s narration – although the cinematography does indeed consist of static shots. Of, er, London. As the camera focuses on various parts of the city, the narrator recounts anecdotes and aphorisms by his friend Robinson, not always as they relate to the part of London on-screen. It’s fascinating, although there’s less work required to piece together the story as the voice-over pretty much does that for you. But the Scofield’s somewhat circuitous explanation of events is its own reward, and the anecdotes are entertaining, irrespective of their relevance to the view on the screen. I plan to watch more films by Keiller – and he’s made quite a few.

man_from_uncleThe Man from UNCLE, Guy Ritchie (2015, USA). Having just worked my way through eight of Solo’s and Kuryakin’s theatrical adventures, I thought it worth giving this twenty-first century reboot a go. True, the director’s name didn’t bode well, although I didn’t actually know it was a Ritchie film when I bunged it on the rental list. But, it arrived in its little envelope, I stuck it in the player and… the title sequence is actually really good. And the film’s commitment to period detail is impressive. The only problem was the two leads – Henry Cavill and Arnie Hammer – have zero on-screen charisma. Cavill has a chin you could chisel granite with, and you feel he ought to light up the screen when he appears, but… he just doesn’t. His urbanity felt like a thin veneer, and not bone-deep as it did with Robert Vaughan, and his suave something he put on only when the camera was on him. Kuryakin, on the other hand, has been re-imagined as some sort of Soviet super-strong thug, and Hammer plays him like a block of Soviet wood. I can’t actually remember the plot, and I’m pretty sure there was one somewhere.

ohenryO Henry’s Full House*, various (1952, USA). I stuck this on the rental list not realising it was an anthology film, with each segment directed by a different person. It starts off strangely, with a man in a jailhouse making notes on what the other prisoners are saying. This, we are then told by John Steinbeck, who is sitting behind a desk in a book-lined study, was O Henry, a journalist who used the people he encountered during his career as fodder for his stories… and each of the short films in O Henry’s Full House is in some way a result of this. Unsurprisingly, given the age of Henry’s stories, the sting in each one’s title comes as no real surprise. Charles Laughton plays a gentleman vagrant, who is chivalrous to Marilyn Monroe in an early role. Richard Widmark plays a hugely irritating villain who gets his just desserts in a nicely ironic fashion. A young woman is convinced her pneumonia will kill her when the last leaf falls from the ivy outside her window – but the leaf never falls. Two men kidnap an annoying kid for ransom, and it pretty much goes as you’d expect. And finally, a poor married couple each make a sacrifice in order to afford a decent Christmas present for the other – with ironic results. The directors involved were Henry Koster, Henry Hathaway, Jean Negulesco, Howard Hawks and Henry King. I’m guessing they couldn’t find five directors called Henry, although both Hawks were Negulesco are both excellent film-makers.

avengers_ultronAvengers: Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon (2015, USA). I’m not a big fan of the MCU films (and now even less of a fan of Marvel given its CEO’s financial support of Trump) and I really didn’t like The Avengers (despite being a Brit, and despite “the Avengers” referring to the far superior group led by John Steed, I think Avengers Assemble a stupid compromise title – we’re smart enough to figure out the difference between a bunch of US near-fascist goons in Spandex and the sarcastically urbane umbrella-wielding Steed; and I also note the Lycra’d loons have lost their definite article for this sequel). Anyway, Avengers: Age of Ultron: I didn’t like this either. Awful film. A stupid movie carried by the personalities of its cast – not the personalities of its characters, but of the actors who played them. With a stupidly confusing plot plastered over the top. One of the problems with Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation was that when you have a villain so powerful, how can you realistically have dramatic conflict? Marvel’s universe suffers from the same problem – something the comics themselves often side-step by randomly ramping up heroes’ superpowers from one story to the next – and Avengers: Age of Ultron falls into the same trap. The only way the Avengers can actually beat Ultron is by Plot Hole. But, to be honest, by that point of the film I was long past giving a shit about any of them, as they came across more like a team of parodies than a serious attempt at recasting comic-book stories for the cinema. Avoid.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 706


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My BSFA ballot

I’ve now posted my votes for the BSFA Award – the deadline is midnight 31 January. And only works on the longlists here can be nominated.

In previous years, members of the BSFA simply nominated works in each of the categories they felt deserving of an award – initially as many as they wanted, but then restricted to four choices – and the final shortlist comprised those works with the most nominations. This year, a first round of nominations (again, four per person per category) produced the longlists linked to above, and now the second round of nominations will lead to the shortlists. Which will then be voted on at the Eastercon at the end of March. It’ll be interesting to see what effect this new process has on the award. Certainly, anyone that didn’t get their act together in December last year, and so didn’t get their chosen works onto the longlists, has now missed their chance. I suspect a few works that might have proven popular with the BSFA membership have missed out as a result. I’m pretty sure, for example, that Carter Scholz’s ‘Gypsy’ – the novella, not the collection – was eligible, but no one nominated it for a longlist (I didn’t read it until after the longlists were published, or I might have done).

Anyway, there are longlists. And I have selected my four choices for each category which I think deserve to be on the shortlist. The novel category wasn’t too difficult, although I was determined to avoid easy picks. I suspect, for example, that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora might make the final cut, although I didn’t think it his best. The longlist certainly helped when it came to the art category – instead of trawling across the internet for suitable works, I had only to look at the longlist (and yes, I did nominate four pieces for it myself, so it’s not like I didn’t do some trawling across the internet). My non-fiction candidates are exactly those I nominated for the longlist. The short fiction category… Well, I worked my way through all those that were available to me, and even went so far as to buy a copy of Wylding Hall from PS Publishing – which was certainly worth it as it has made my ballot.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my nominations from the longlists for the BSFA Award shortlists (in alphabetical order):

novel
1 A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)
2 Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
3 Glorious Angels, Justina Robson (Gollancz)
4 Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

I expect the Hutchinson to make the shortlist as there’s been a bit of buzz about it – and deservedly so. The Robson might make it on name recognition – she’s been shortlised four times before – and I think Glorious Angels is less polarising than her Quantum Gravity quintet might have been. The Tchaikvosky will, I think, lose out to KSR, which would be a shame. The Atkinson is a long shot – a few people have recommended it, but despite Life After Life I don’t think she has much traction among BSFA members.

short fiction
1 Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (PS Publishing)
2 ‘Islands off the Coast of Capitola, 1978’, David Herter (tor.com)
3 ‘Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Space’,’ Sammy Kriss (The New Inquiry)
4 A Day in Deep Freeze, Lisa Shapter (Aqueduct Press)

The Hand was recommended and proved a good call – but it’s a PS novella, so not free to read. That might count against it. The Shapter is my own nomination for the longlist – but again, it’s from a small press and can’t be read for free online. A shame as it’s really very good (so is the Hand too, of course). Both the Herter and the Kriss are free to read online. I’ve been a fan of Herter’s fiction for many years, and only wish he were more prolific. The Kriss is… a beautifully judged piece of trolling, and award-worthy for that reason.

non-fiction
1 ‘What Price, Your Critical Agency?’, Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture)
2 Rave and Let Die, Adam Roberts (Steel Quill Press)
3 ‘{and then} a writing life beyond reviews’, Maureen Kincaid Speller (Paper Knife)
4 My Fair Ladies, Julie Wosk (Rutgers University Press)

Maureen Kincaid Speller and Jonathan McCalmont are some of the best fan-writers we have in the UK (even if both would dispute the label). (And I see no good reason to nominate a piece of US fan-writing for this UK-based award.) The two pieces above are important elements in a conversation which I think deserves to be read by more people in genre. Adam Roberts is one of our best genre critics, and I don’t want him to pack it in. The Wosk caught my fancy on a certain very large online retailer one day, and it’s a fascinating piece of work, if focused more on media sf rather than written sf.

art
1 cover of Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction, Luis Lasahido (Tachyon)
2 cover of Wolfhound Century (2015 edition), Jeffrey Alan Love (Gollancz)
3 cover of All That Outer Space Allows, Kay Sales (Whippleshield Books)
4 illustration for ‘Songbird’, Vincent Sammy (Interzone # 257)

Four lovely pieces of design, covering a variety of styles. If the cover of a certain self-published novel appears in my list of four, it’s because I think all four quartet covers are excellent but it’s only this last which is eligible – and all four covers are brilliantly done, relevant to each book, and yet each one a simple but highly effective design. But then I do like that sort of stuff a lot – as does my sister, of course – and was fascinated by a visit at Christmas to Finn Juhl’s House at the Ordrupgaard Museum.


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Reading diary, #21

The first batch of 2016’s reading, which, er, seems to be entirely works from last year. I don’t normally read a great deal of recent fiction, and especially books that are less than twelve months old – although, to be fair, I need to get my choices in for the BSFA Award before the end of the month… And some of them feature below. It’ll be interesting to see if the longlist approach has made much of a difference to the shortlist. (I note that ‘Gypsy’, the title novella of the PM Press collection, see below, was actually eligible but no one appears to have nominated it for the long list. Which is a shame.)

fleshandwiresFlesh & Wires, Jackie Hatton (2015). So I went on the Aqueduct Press website with the intention of buying both Elysium and Necessary Ill, both books I’d been planning to pick up for a while… and I saw mention of Flesh & Wires, as well as a pair of novellas, A Day in the Deep Freeze (which I’ve nominated for the BSFA Award) and The XY Conspiracy, bunged them into my basket and bought them… And the first of the three novels I read was Flesh & Wires. To be honest, the blurb made the novel sound more interesting than it proved to be. Which is not to say it wasn’t good. The set-up worked, the plot worked, the characters were well-drawn, there were just some elements of the background which read as confused and a little, well, clichéd. The Earth was invaded by aliens, who killed off most of the population, but kept some women, and turned them into sort of cyborgs by means of “wires”. But then the aliens died of an Earthly disease, and a new set of aliens, Orbiters, turned up, and sort of helped the surviving women – and handful of men – to rebuild. The novel is set in a small town just south of New York, and told chiefly from the point-of-view of a powerful “wired” woman who is the de facto leader of the town. When her brother, long thought dead, turns up and proves to be representing the Orbiters – and is not not at all honest about his intentions; and then a group of Orbiters exiled to Earth also appear, casting doubt on what the protagonist had believed of the current state of affairs… The end result is a solidly feminist sf novel that perhaps relies over much on somewhat dodgy tropes but manages to put a fresh spin on its plot. I’d also like to go on record as stating that Aqueduct Press publish some bloody good sf, and it’s always a pleasure to place orders with them.

my_fair_ladiesMy Fair Ladies, Julie Wosk (2015). Subtitled “Female robots, androids and other artifical eves”, which pretty much describes its topic to a tee. The author was inspired by the discovery of a mannequin’s head in a street fair, and from that starting point goes on to cover historical representations of artificial women in Greek mythology, by Shaw and other late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century writers, before moving into films, television, robots occupying the uncanny valley, and finally artists, such as Cindy Sherman (although no mention of Gillian Wearing or Lenae Day), who explore the concept of “perfect manmade” women through their art. While the book goes into detail on early literary artificial women, later literature – particularly science fiction – is mentioned only in relation to film or television adaptations. So, no Susan Calvin, Asimov’s robot psychologist who behaved like a robot herself; nor the women of EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Masters of Space, who are all too eager to be uploaded into replacement robot bodies because it means “their tits won’t sag”; nor even Helen O’Loy. The list of fictional female robots and cyborgs on Wikipedia gives remarkably few examples from sf stories or novels, so perhaps it’s a topic written sf hasn’t tackled that much… although it feels like it has done; too prudish, perhaps, or maybe it required more self-examination than male writers of two-fisted space adventures were capable of; and female writers had more than enough material writing about real women. Anyway, fascinating stuff. One for the non-fiction BSFA Award.

large_737_gypsyGypsy, Carter Scholz (2015). I’d never heard of Scholz, although apparently he is held in high regard. Looking at some of the comments on this book, it’s clear he has plenty of genre friends in San Francisco/Oakland, where he lives – including Kim Stanley Robinson – and where PM Press is based. None of which is a reflection on Scholz’s ability, more on the requirement of connections and patronage in genre in order for good fiction to get noticed. And ‘Gypsy’, the title novella of this collection, is very good indeed. It’s 2015’s third generation starship story, and probably the best of the three as a generation starship story. Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time scores well because of its spider civilisation, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora has some good bits about narratology… but Scholz’s ‘Gypsy’ goes for real science and engineering and paints a bleak picture – one not helped by the driving force behind the flight being the immanent collapse of Earth’s biosphere. Not that the flight itself provides any answers. The remainder of the collection comprises a somewhat tired epistolary short story, an essay about US economic shenanigans, a story presented as house committee testimony, and an interview with Scholz. I have a lot of time for Scholz’s approach to genre, as given in his interview, but only the title novella seems a good expression of it.

europeEurope at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015). I thought Europe in Autumn a very good, if a little confused, novel – a superior near-future spy novel, it took an unexpected swerve around two-thirds in, which unsettled the plot but managed not to upset it. And now the sequel, Europe at Midnight, follows that swerve further around the curve and results in a very different novel of a type of science fiction that likely occupies a small place all its own in the genre’s corpus. In the nineteenth century, a wealthy family invented a new English county, which somehow came into being in a reality sideways from ours, and then subsequently expanded into Europe to form a Little England writ large: the Community. Which, it seems, has teeth. The novel opens in the Campus, a pocket universe 200 miles across which comprises one huge university, now having difficulty recovering after a bloody coup. The new Professor of Intelligence is suspicious of the Faculty of Science, but his investigations result in the termination of his position and a take-over by the Science people, who have suspiciously modern weapons. Fortunately, he escapes to our Europe… where he comes under the control of the UK intelligence services. Despite that disconcerting start, we’re now back in future spy novel territory… but even then, Europe at Midnight seems to slip across hidden borders into parallel fictions – much as some of its cast do – as it tells a story about Europe, the Campus and the Community which is only actually revealed in the final chapter. This is good stuff – a novel that cleverly runs our future alongside our memories of our past, and sets the scene for a war between the two. I’ll be nominating this for the BSFA Award.

wylding_hallWylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (2015). This appeared on the BSFA Award short fiction longlist, and was recommended by several people whose opinions I trust – and, it had to be said, the précis did sound interesting… so I bought it, read it, and I’m giving it one of my four slots on my BSFA Award ballot. An acid folk group in the very early seventies hires the eponymous country manor to rehearse and record their second album (following the suicide of the group’s original singer; she was also the girlfriend of the band’s main creative force). Wylding Hall is a strange place, but this novella doesn’t go for in-your-face ghosts and apparitions but a much more effective general atmosphere of uncertainty. Windhollow Faire come across as a believable band, and the links to the darker side of English folklore are well-handled. The story is told as the decades-later reminiscences of the band members, a technique which is especially effective as it gives it the authority of a Sky Arts documentary. I have only a couple of minor niggles – back then, a grammar school would have been more posh than a comprehensive, and Radio 3 – not BBC 3 – was always more into classical and jazz, not folk; and John Peel was on Radio 1, which was the station mostly likely to play electric folk at that time.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 121


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Moving pictures 2016, #1

A few people have said they’ve enjoyed these posts, so that’s enough for me – I’m going to keep them going. Otherwise, I guess, it’d be weeks between content appearing on this blog. Having said that, I really should write another one of my rants about science fiction, they usually go down well… But, for now, it’s movies and more movies…

cria_cuervosCría Cuervos*, Carlos Saura (1975, Spain). There are films you feel you really ought to like, given their subject and how well they’ve been made. I suspect Cría Cuervos is one such film. An eight-year-old girl witnesses a mistress visit her father on the night of his death, but she believes she was herself responsible for his death because she added “poison” to his glass of milk earlier that evening. She takes the glass from her dead father’s bedside and carefully washes it. Her mother appears in the kitchen, and the two talk. The father was a senior military officer in Franco’s fascist government. After the funeral, their mother’s sister is brought in to look after the girl and her two sisters – because their mother had died years before (in a clever bit of casting, Geraldine Chapman – the director’s partner at the time – plays both the mother and the adult version of the protagonist, who appears occasionally to comment on the events of her childhood). The children’s aunt is not a very good substitute mother, and the young girl obsesses over the “poison” she had given her father – which later proves to be nothing more than bicarbonate of soda – so much so that she even offers it to her mute grandmother. There is something contained about this film, the fact that Franco’s regime exists but impinges only peripherally, and yet the whole film is itself a commentary on that regime. It is, on reflection, a clever film, one that deserves more than single watching. I’m not convinced its child protagonist is necessarily a strong enough character to centre the film – and more ought to have been made of her future self’s appearances – but the way her life allegorizes Spain as a whole is effective. A good film.

uncleThe Man from UNCLE Movies: To Trap a Spy, One of Our Spies is Missing, The Spy with My Face, One Spy Too Many, The Spy in the Green Hat, The Karate Killers, The Helicopter Spies, How to Steal the World (1966 – 1968). I have no idea what possessed me to buy this boxed set of eight movies, expanded for theatrical release from episodes of The Man from UNCLE (I refuse to put full stops in the word, we don’t do that in the UK – abbreviations, initialisms and acronyms aren’t written with them in British English). Anyway, the men from UNCLE, Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin. One of the many cable channels to which I have access had been showing these films and I caught a couple. They weren’t very good, but I thought it worth seeing the rest… Hence the DVD box set. And, well, as expected, they weren’t especially good. To Trap a Spy stars Luciana Paluzzi as the femme fatale, but she’s completely wasted. The Spy in the Green Hat has a frankly bonkers Jack Palance as the villain, ably assisted by Janet Leigh as an unhinged secretary/assassin (the best character, it has to be said, in the lot). It’s near impossible to pick a “best” film as they’re all so bad – and often cheap, too. Despite the familiar faces of the guest stars, the movies still boast television-episode budgets, and there’s an English-looking house somewhere in Hollywood or Bel Air used as a mansion in a variety of European countries. Having said all that, Vaughn is impressively suave as Solo, McCallum is, er, McCallum, and THRUSH is still a dumb name for an evil organisation. Complete tosh.

black_sundayBlack Sunday*, Mario Bava (1960, Italy). This was apparently the first film Bava directed and wrote – and it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… which is why I watched it. I’ve seen comments which praise its cinematography, but Bava was always a bit of a stylist – and it’s a failing of critics everywhere and at any time that genre should somehow be treated differently, as if the same rules of style do not apply because, well, horror. Absolute bollocks. Genre is an attribute of the story, not of how the story is told. Having said that, Bava’s style was certainly distinctive, and often OTT. In Black Sunday, a witch is executed in the seventeenth century, but two hundred years later, a pair of innocents discover her grave and inadvertently bring her back to life. There are no surprises here, but it’s all done with panache and a somewhat more artistic approach to such stories than may have been common previously. Fun, but I’m not sure why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

superflySuper Fly*, Gordon Parks Jr (1972, USA). Because blaxploitation films became a thing in the 1970s, the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die list feels an obvious need to acknowledge their existence by including a few on its list, without actually thinking it possible to build a list in which such movies are not necessary. Because if you make a list that’s 50% American, then it’s going to be racist by definition – hence the need for three films by Gordon Parks Jr. Include more films by, for example, Ousmane Sembène, Souleymane Cissé, Mahamat Saleh Haroun, Mehdi Charef, or any other film-maker from the African continent. In fact, the list has remarkably few Arab directors on it – none from Egypt’s enormous film industry, no Palestinian directors such as Elia Suleiman (a favourite of mine, I admit), although one or two Iranian directors and Israeli directors are listed. All of which has has no bearing on Super Fly, which is a relatively ordinary early seventies thriller, notable because its hero is a villain and the film more or less presents his career as the one of the few open to people of colour. Which is likely true in the US – then and now. Not a great film, and I suspect its implications would be lost on ninety percent of its audience – which does render its inclusion in the list somewhat moot.

kuchKuch Kuch Hota Hai, Karan Johar (1998, India). After watching Deewaar by mistake late last year, and having really enjoyed Dilwale Dulhalia Le Jayenge earlier in the year also, I went and stuck a bunch of Bollywood films on my DVD rental list. And Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was the first to arrive. My expectations were… pretty much based on Dilwale Dulhalia Le Jayenge, rather than Deewaar, and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai met them all – it even starred Shah Rukh Khan again (despite being released in the same year as Dilwale Dulhalia Le Jayenge). SRK, while at college, fell in love with the principal’s daughter, who had joined after studying in the UK, they married and had a baby. Sadly, the mother died in childbirth. Eight years later, daughter Anjali reads the final letter left by her mother and learns that she was named for SRK’s best friend at college. The original Anjali is about to get married, but young Anjali thinks her father would make a better husband. There’s also a long flashback sequence explaining how SRK, Tina (young Anjali’s mother) and original Anjali meet and become friends/lovers. Plus songs and dance routines. I loved it. That decision to add some Bollywood to my rental list? Totally vindicated. I will admit to a secret hope – many years ago, in a taxi in Abu Dhabi I heard a song from a Bollywood film playing on the radio, and it managed to cover about fifteen musical genres in less minutes. A friend later told me the film in which the song had appeared, but I have since forgotten the title and would love to stumble across it. But, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was just a fun film from start to finish. I tweeted while watching it that “Bollywood was Hollywood dialled up to eleven”, and so it is. I have been bemoaning the preponderance of Hollywood films in my viewing last year, but Bollywood makes a perfect replacement. More such films have been added to DVD rental list.

public_enemyThe Public Enemy*, William A Wellman (1931, USA). One of the drivers of early Hollywood success appears to have been gangster movies, and I’m not entirely sure why. There are certainly other stories that are just as dramatic. I guess Prohibition fucked up the US more than it cares to admit. Not that the US would ever admit it’s been pretty much fucked-up since it was founded. Anyway, the end result is that many gangster movies of the 1930s all resemble each other – I kept on forgetting I was watching The Public Enemy, and confusing it with either Scarface or Angels with Dirty Faces. Although, sadly, it wasn’t a patch on Scarface. Cagney plays a gangster who makes good selling beer to bars – not that the bar owners have much choice, and much like the plot of Scarface – and argues often with his war hero brother. And, er, that’s about it. Cagney is a gangster, there is much gangsterly violence, Cagney dies a gangsterish death. The end. Watch Scarface, ignore all the other movies of like ilk.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list: 704


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Reading diary, #20

A new year, more books read (some of which are actually from the Christmas holiday, but never mind).

the_uninvitedThe Uninvited, Liz Jensen (2012). I am a Liz Jensen fan, although I don’t make as much of an effort to read her books as I should do. True, whenever I see one in a charity shop, I buy it. But, seriously, I should be buying her books new from a retailer – online or otherwise – because they are that good. Consider it a personal failing. In The Uninvited, the narrator, who suffers from Asperger’s, finds himself drawn into an investigation into children who have murdered their parents. And there seems to be an epidemic of such murders. In all cases, the children have no idea why they committed murder, and seem completely unaffected by their actions. Jensen never gives you quite what you expect – and that’s as true of this novel as it is of any of her others. The narrator’s condition is handled expertly, the circumstances of the deaths he investigates are presented convincingly, and the actual plot of the novel actually seems almost plausible. I’m not the only one with a failing here – we should all be reading Liz Jensen. And The Uninvited is as good a place to start as any.

Last Pilot_PicadorThe Last Pilot, Benjamin Johncock (2015). How could I not read this? A test pilot at Muroc Air Force Base (later renamed Edwards) in the late 1940s becomes an astronaut in the Apollo programme. This is exactly the same ground I covered in All That Outer Space Allows, although I did it from the wife’s point of view. And my take is a lot more technical. As far as I can determine, Johncock’s Jim Harrison takes the place of Dave Scott (Apollo 15 commander), although Scott does actually appear toward the end of the book. Also, while many aspects of Harrison’s persona life are invented, many incidents assigned to Harrison actually happened to others. Harrison is there when Yeager breaks the Sound Barrier in 1947, he gets assigned to the X-15 program and then to the X-20 program, before eventually joining NASA and becoming an Apollo astronaut. Also like All That Outer Space Allows, The Last Pilot focuses on its protagonist’s marriage. Although Harrison and his wife try for children for years, they’re not successful – but then, against all odds, as is usually the case in fiction, they have a girl. But she sickens and dies of cancer at the age of ten, and her death slowly tears the marriage apart from within. If lit fic is unfairly characterised as fiction about middle-class marriages disintegrating, then The Last Pilot is lit fic – albeit with a test pilot/astronaut as its protagonist. It is well-researched, well-written, and Johncock cleverly covers plenty of ground by assigning so many documented incidents to his protagonist. But – and I can actually say this: it’s not the book I would have written. And my own novel coloured my reading of Johncock’s – almost certainly unfairly. It’s a good piece of work, certainly – but I would have preferred something a little more interesting as the plot’s engine… And lots more technical detail.

Caliban-1Caliban, Garth Ennis & Facundo Percio (2015). This was the first of two graphic novels I bought in Faraos Cigarers in order to make up my numbers on my 150 book reading challenge. To be honest, the shop also had an impressive number of Moebius collections, and I would have bought them like a shot – but they were all in Danish. Sigh. Instead, I had to make do with substandard US/UK sf graphic novels like this one. A spaceship collides with a mysterious alien spaceship in hyperspace and the crew of the former decide to explore the latter. Guess what – this proves to be a bad move. There’s like some alien virus thing which takes over one of the crew and leads it to slaughter all the others. This is pretty much Event Horizon meets Alien. A thoroughly unimpressive and derivative piece of science fiction in graphic form. Seriously, given the stuff produced by France, Anglophone graphic sf needs to step up its game big time.

4263805-1+lady+killer+1+cover+final+designLady Killer, Joëlle Jones & Jamie S Rich (2015). And this was the second graphic novel from Faraos Cigarer. It was the also the more appealing of the two. Nineteen-fifties housewife secretly works as an assassin on the side. Sadly, the plot is almost pure cliché from start to finish – after several successful, and very bloody, jobs, there’s one which proves she’s not a totally heartless killing machine. Meanwhile her boss has decided she’s going to become a liability – because she’s a woman. Perhaps there could have been more housewife stuff (probably not of interest to your average comics fan) to provide a better contrast with the killing and gore, but despite that the art is really very nice indeed. It’s just a shame the story couldn’t think beyond its boundaries – I mean, there’s plenty of room for commentary on fifties society, something a little more subtle than the blunt instrument that is a housewife-assassin (who actually masquerades as a Bunnygirl at one point!). But this is hardly Moebius, or any bande dessinéee, so I guess I should take what I can get.

moonshotsMoonshots & Snapshots of Project Apollo, John Bisney & JL Pickering (2015). The second of two books by the authors about – well, the title pretty much gives it away. Like Spaceshots & Snapshots of Projects Mercury & Gemini, the authors have selected photographs not normally seen in these sorts of books. There are, of course, a huge number of books about the US space programme (not so many about the Soviet one, obviously), which does make you wonder how some people didn’t know who Neil Armstrong was – even if Project Apollo ended forty years ago with ASTP and that’s pretty much ancient history to some. But Mercury, Gemini and Apollo – not to mention Vostok, Voskhod and the many versions of Soyuz – were an astonishing achievement, and sadly seem nowadays to be little more than fuel for a lucrative nostalgia industry rather than an actual stepping stone to further achievements in the human exploration of space. It’s tempting to think that two hundred years from now all this might be indistinguishable from some sort of science fiction documentation project, like one of those mockumentaries about invented rock bands – but what a project! So much documentation! And all the cross-referencing! (All of which, of course, means people who think the Moon landings are a hoax are complete idiots.) Anyway, there’s a huge number of books on twentieth-century space exploration, and it’s almost impossible to keep up with them. But these two by Bisney and Pickering would look good in any space books collection.

annhilationAnnihilation, Jeff VanderMeer (2014). This is a good book, one of the better ones genre fiction produced in 2014. Let’s get that out of the way. It is also completely not my thing. If I had to vote for it on a shortlist, it would be because of its recognisable quality not because I liked it. I’ve already decided I won’t be bothering with parts two and three. Four women are sent into Area X, a wilderness area which manifests strange behaviours, as the latest in a number of expeditions, of which all the previous were unsuccessful. The women are never named – the narrator, whose journal forms the narrative, explains that the expeditions do not use names since referring to each other by profession is considered safer within Area X. A day or two after their arrival, they find a structure which the narrator calls the Tower but the others refer to as a tunnel. It is a staircase circling down into the earth to an unknown depth. Along the wall of the staircase is a line of glowing script, possibly fungal in nature, written by a creature several levels lower. None of this is explained. And deliberately not so. As I commented in a Twitter conversation with Jonathan McCalmont a few days ago, prompted by John Clute’s review of David G Hartwell & Patrick Neilsen Hayden’s 21st Century Science Fiction in The New York Review of Science Fiction (see here)… Clute’s point that science fiction colonises the universe – “to make the future in our own image” – resonated with some of my own thoughts on the genre. To me, the universe is explainable but not necessarily knowable, and I prefer science fictions which reflect that. Area X in Annihilation is plainly neither knowable nor explainable, and is clearly not meant to be. It’s an artistic choice, but it’s one that doesn’t interest me.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 121


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Moving pictures, #42

This is the last lot of movies watched in 2015 – only three of them, in fact. Well, two movies and a season of a television series. I’m still unsure whether to continue these posts this year – what do people think? Is it worth it? I mean, I do tend to watch a broad variety of films, and while I can hardly recommend every one I’ve watched, I’ve certainly discovered directors and movies I greatly admire. I’d hope readers of this blog find these posts useful.

easy_riderEasy Rider*, Dennis Hopper (1969, USA). There are films you know about but never get around to watching – and it’s hard not to know about an icon of US counter-culture like Easy Rider. But I’d never seen it. Unfortunately, such knowledge often results in you thinking you know what to expect. Like two guys on choppers, driving around the US, complaining about The Man. And while elements of Easy Rider might well be described as such, I actually found myself really enjoying it because it proved to be so much more. There was the music, of course – all very much of the time, but not especially obvious choices. The cinematography was surprisingly good, especially of the US landscape. The film tries for a thriller plot, but mostly fails because it’s been filmed in that less-than-rigourous manner in which actors were expected to improvise, and non-professionals were involved. Neither fact, of course, is a criticism – in fact, they can result in superior movies (except for comedies, that is, especially Seth Rogen ones). But they did somewhat upset my expectations… albeit in a good way. Despite the fact it’s likely an invention, or probably never existed, I still can’t help buying into the beardy long-haired hippy on a chopper turning their back on society thing – even though it never came to anything, and most of them ended up as either CEOs of successful hedge funds or sellers wildly improbable products that no one was interested in… I’d like to see this again; I think it bears rewatching.

sohck_corridorShock Corridor*, Samuel Fuller (1963, USA). I know Fuller’s name from The Big Red One, which I watched last year (it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, of course; as is Shock Corridor). Although clearly done on the cheap, I thought The Big Red One a superior WWII movie, and I’m not that much of a fan of the genre. Shock Corridor, however, is an early work, a black-and-white OTT noir thriller. I wasn’t expecting much, but I ended up loving it. I plan to buy the Criterion Collection edition – and The Naked Kiss, which I’ve not seen but was made around the same time. But, Shock Corridor… A reporter poses as a patient to infiltrate a mental hospital where a patient was murdered the previous year. The crime is still unsolved, but clearly someone inside the hospital was responsible. Of course, the burden of presenting as mentally ill eventually causes the reporter to become mentally ill. But he does solve the crime. It’s all completely over-the-top – the patients are all pretty much clichés of mental patients, but Constance Towers plays a good role as the reporter’s girlfriend. In fact, she makes the film. It’s also a little weird seeing Roscoe P Coltrane play a straight role. Great stuff.

hammer_houseHammer House Of Horror – Complete Collection (1980, UK). I remember these being broadcast back in 1980. I was at boarding school, and we stayed up late to watch them. I only saw a few of the thirteen episodes, however – or at least, I only have memories of a few of the episodes. Two in particular have always stood out – ‘Guardian of the Abyss’, in which a Satanic cult use Dr Dee’s original scrying glass to summon a powerful devil; and ‘The Carpathian Eagle’, which featured Suzanne Danielle as a young woman who picks up men and cuts out their hearts. Last year, the Horror channel (one of the hundred or so cable channels I have on Virgin Media which rarely show anything of interest) broadcast the entire series, but again I only managed to catch a couple of episodes. Thirty-five years later, the one thing that struck me about the episodes I watched on cable telly was that they were so very late nineteen-seventies. And they weren’t very scary at all. I’d been a little afraid they were – ‘Guardian of the Abyss’ had given me nightmares when I watched it back in 1980. So I decided to get the DVD set, and… Well, they’re not really horror, they’re more thrillers, often with only a hint of the supernatural. They were also a lot better than I’d expected. Production values were pretty high for the time (okay, so the same manor house appeared under different names in multiple episodes, but never mind), the cast were pretty high-powered – Denholm Elliott, Peter Cushing, Brian Cox, Jon Finch, Simon MacCorkindale, Paul Darrow, Diana Dors, Warren Clarke, Dinah Sheridan… – and the final twists weren’t always blindingly obvious. Perhaps one or two episodes felt a bit stretched for their 51 minutes running time, but others were very effective in the scares department. When the DVD set arrived, I wondered why I’d bother ordering it, but having now seen all thirteen episodes I’m glad I did. ‘Guardian of the Abyss’ is still hugely creepy, if no longer nightmare-inducing; the plot of ‘The Carpathian Eagle’ is far more obvious than I’d remembered but is still good drama; and there are also fun episodes like ‘The House that Bled to Death’ (Carrie, in a semi-detached),’ A Rude Awakening’ (Denholm Elliott trapped in a sequence of nested nightmares), ‘Visitor from the Grave’ (woman kills an attacker, but he continues to haunt her), and ‘The Two Faces of Evil’ (scary hitchhiker proves to be a doppelgänger of a woman’s husband). Good stuff.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 701

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